The Rise of Henson
Let’s keep this short, short, short.
Short like the shrinking list of NBA players who are blocking more shots than John Henson this season. Short like the distance from the court to the bench, the bench to the court. Short as John Henson never will be.
Henson won back-to-back ACC Defensive Player of the Year awards in his final two seasons at North Carolina. A couple days after the Bucks selected him at #14 in the 2012 draft, Billy McKinney (the team’s Director of Scouting) told me about Henson’s fast-developing defensive game.
“He is ahead of the curve defensively, which is tougher for players to adjust to (in the NBA) from the college level. Most players come in with their offensive game I would say ahead of their defensive game. Here is a guy who understands his role and understands what his strengths are.”
And yes, Henson had some nice moments, some nice nights as a rookie, he even started nine games. But he also persevered through a share of DNP-CDs and struggled to keep the burlier forwards and centers away from the basket. And we rarely saw the shot-blocker that we all heard so much about.
A dozen games or so into 2013, this all seems (seems) to be changing.
The block is the most glamorous defensive stat, but it is also meaningful.
And Henson is blocking far more shots now than last season. He is playing roughly twice as many minutes per game now, but even his per-minute numbers are way up, from 1.8 to 2.8 blocks per 36 minutes. Not exactly on a Larry Sanders level, but enough to place him in the elite, top ten range so far. This is important.
About the block above:
The guy he blocked, Daniel Orton, that was his man. Henson had slid over to force a play from Spencer Hawes, who had found some free space near the hoop with the ball after his defender, Ersan Ilyasova, was pushed to the ground. Henson recovered after the Hawes pass to Orton and threw the Orton throwdown attempt back something fierce.
But there is more to Henson on defense this season than highlight plays. Take a look at that opponent field goal percentage at the rim: 38.7 %. (Thanks again, SportVU). That ranks seventh best in the NBA right now. That is also based on a relatively small sample size, but it is growing.
So, you might think that Henson’s opponents aren’t faring so well overall this season. You might be right.
Henson’s opponents are indeed sporting below average numbers (per 82games.com, stats here running a couple games behind, so will update when available).
He has played the majority of his minutes at power forward, where opponents have managed a 14.1 PER. The league average automatically sets to 15.0. For some perspective, Henson currently carries a 19.3 PER. So this is a major net positive.
Which is why it makes sense that the Bucks have played better with Henson on the court than with him off the court.
Scott Williams, who won three titles as a player with the Bulls and not quite one with the Bucks, now works as an assistant coach for the team. Come to a game early (really, early), and you can find him with Henson practicing post moves, lefty hooks, righty hooks, positioning.
Much of this story has centered on Henson’s one-on-one defense and the related stats. Before a recent home game, Williams pinpointed Henson’s help defense as an area of strength and progression this year.
“I think right now his help defense has been really good. We don’t have the fastest-footed perimeter players. We have a lot guys who get into the lane, so he can get over and either block shots or change and alter the direction, to keep guys from even taking shots. So he has been impressive at that. We are working on his strength on the ball defensively against stronger, bigger players. It’s all coming, it’s all part of the natural development.”
Before chatting with Williams that night, I watched Henson and Williams warm up together. Larry Sanders sat a couple seats away from me, also watching. A couple times, Sanders offered some shouts of encouragement. Sanders also told me that with more minutes, he sees Henson getting more and more comfortable.
“One thing that I have told him, once you find your pace, others have to adjust to you.”
In the locker room before the game, Henson was watching some film, so I asked if he watches anyone in particular, to help pattern his defensive game.
“Larry Sanders. I learned a lot from him, just from watching him do his defensive thing. He gives me advice all the time, with a lot of the little things, like where and when to help, and those are the kinds of things that make him a great defender.”
The idea for this story started simply: Henson was blocking more shots, and it was obvious. As I researched, what happened is what reporters always want to happen: most of the stats and the quotes and the facts pointed in the same, convenient direction.
But it is not that simple. It’s early. Henson is young, and his impact can get lost a bit in the game, his minutes still need to be earned. The lineups and the team results are mixed, inconclusive. His rebound rate has dipped this season. Like any reasonable coach, Larry Drew wants more.
“An area where I constantly challenge John is the physical side. And I understand from a physicality standpoint, he is not a real big guy. But he still has to play with a little more physicality, a little more aggression when he is out there.”
The first thing Henson said to me the other night was that he still has a lot of work to do. A lot of players have said and will say the same type of thing. But for the moment, Henson is a little different. Because the list of people who not only say… but also then go out and do the right thing can be short, short, short.
Writing and the Bucks. Two of my passions. So it is good to be here. I have reported on media row for just about every Bucks home game since 2009. I started writing for the Bucks in 2012. Before that, I co-founded and wrote for BrewHoop. I have written for the Milwaukee Brewers, SB Nation, ESPN Milwaukee, Slam Online, and so on. Feel free to follow me on Twitter @alexboeder or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.